The real state of Ghana’s tourism sector

Tourist Gateway4 Entrance to one of the country's tourist destinations

Thu, 3 Jun 2021 Source: Nico van Staalduinen

The Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA) and Ministry of Tourism are doing a great job advertising and promoting Ghana as a tourist attraction.

But is Ghana really a great tourist destination?

People inside and outside Ghana know my love for Ghana, the country I called my home for many years. People know I am a Ghanaian but most people don’t know my involvement in the hospitality sector, for that reason I will finish with a small “CV” at the end of this article.

My point and question is: Is Ghana a tourist destination or a trap?

The reason I point this is that I think that a tourist who sees all the promotional activities of all Ghanaian institutions and organizations one would think: “Let’s book a trip to that great tourist country Ghana”.

And what do these tourists get, see and go through before, during and after spending their holidays in Ghana? First of all, Ghana is facing a number of avoidable and un-avoidable disadvantages to become a great tourist destination.

Tourism around the world is led by the Christian rich/developed countries. Why Christians, some people would ask. The reason I mention this is because the most important holidays are based upon the Christian holidays; Christmas and Easter. The second part is summer holidays, they take place when the developed world in the northern hemisphere is taking 4 – 6 weeks annual holidays.

To define the periods: from 20-21 December until 3-4 January and from end of June roughly until roughly 3rd week of August. The Christmas holidays are short and take place during our harmattan, the summer holidays are during our longest raining season. Both are not exactly what tourist visiting a tropical country are looking for.

A typical holidaymaker is (in general) looking for the following: easy access and transportation, lots of sun (to return home with a good sun-tan) a white clean sand to walk on to a crystal blue sea. After that, cocktails on a beach bar, a good clean hygienic tasteful dinner, good evening entertainment and a good hotel to sleep in with a great breakfast and all this at an affordable price for flight and accommodation.

And this is what they get:

Disturbing regulations to enter Ghana, unrealistic and blocking access on VISA requirements, because many countries around the world are still using reciprocity in Visa requirements. In common English meaning; “tit-for-tat” for foreigners entering Ghana. Simply meaning that if it’s difficult for a Ghanaian to enter your country, we also make it just as difficult for your citizens to enter our country (Ghana). Arranging an invitation? Booking a flight?

Disturbing health regulations: Yellow card, injections against yellow fever, thyroid, Cholera and Malaria prevention. Read well! I don’t blame Ghana nor the “tourists” but it is a barrier on their holidays. Costs: Single entry Visa: 60 Usd. (50 Euro) all injections 180 Usd (150 Euro).

If you have overcome these the next step is finding an affordable flight. What does the tourism industry offer and to who and what is Ghana competing to attract the much wanted and needed tourists: 10 days Cuba flight and all-in 999 Euro, 15 days Mallorca, flight, hotel including breakfast 699 Euro. 8 days Malta, flight, hotel, breakfast and dinner 499 Euro.

Now let’s get to Ghana: direct flight; Amsterdam, Brussels, London, if you are lucky 990 Euro. Indirect flights: via Dubai, Addis Ababa, Istanbul, Casablanca 800 Euros.

On top of that almost all big Tourist Countries have either no Visa requirements or have a free of charge visa on arrival. Although Ghana has a visa on arrival possibility, the procedure (request letter by someone resident in Ghana) and price (penalty of 90 Usd on top of your 60 Usd Visa price), is troubling.

Let’s not mention the current (overpriced) Covid19 procedures. Because that will soon be in the past.

The first thing the flight attendants are telling you when you approach Ghana, after fasten your seatbelts and put your seats in the upright position is: “it is for security reasons not allowed to take pictures at the airport”. There go your first holiday impressions down the drain. I often asked myself; “Is Ghana still under martial law? Are we still a one-party state? Is there any danger that people will use these pictures to plan an attack on Ghana, our peaceful nation? Are there any things to see we need to protect? Or is it to protect airport staff charging “assistance” or illegal “help”, so there is never any proof? Why ???

A tourist coming out is then hit for the first time to our wonderful but humid hot climate to feel the holiday feeling.

That’s when the real African struggle starts. If you are lucky your accommodation arranged transport to your hotel or guesthouse. The less lucky ones first have to pass to a crowd of legal and illegal taxi drivers, porters and searchers for a lucky day. Among them, like in any country a few thieves and also other people waiting for their guests.

Taxi drivers are the worst promoters of our Ghanaian friendliness and safety. Some years ago, I arrived from a trip abroad and crossed the road to wait for my driver who was late. A taxi driver stopped and told me it’s not safe to stand there because I could be robbed. He also told me he was an official airport taxi and others where armoured robbers who brought you to the outskirts of town to rob you. He also showed me an “official” price list with costs to bring me to different hotels; I remember Golden Tulip 20 USD, being 16 years later 120 Ghs. After letting him finish his whole story I blasted the “idiot” and told him what he had just done to destroy tourism in our safe and great country if I were an ordinary tourist.

Next thing for the tourist are the hotels and hotel pricing. Although I admit there has been some improvements compared to 10-15 years ago.

I remember when I went into the Dutch Army at the age of 18. I made a complaint to the sergeant handing out our first uniforms that mine didn’t fit well. His answer was: The army provides only 2 seize uniforms; too big and too small. The hospitality industry in Ghana does the same: too expensive or a too low standard.

I agree, land prices are ridiculously high in and around Accra, but that is (or should) be compensated by lower wages in comparison with the rest of the world. What kind of impression does that make on a tourist visiting an official lower middle income developing country?

Ghana’s tourist board doesn’t understand what tourists like, need or want. For the simple reason that they are comparing what foreign tourists need and want to a local tourist. For example: I have a nice affordable guesthouse, serve a continental breakfast and after a visit from inspectors of the Ghana Tourist Board I was advised/instructed to put fridges in all my rooms, carpets or mats and serve hot meals. They also advised me to change my cream and light brown bedsheets and towels for white. I never had a single European or American guest in 7 years telling me he would appreciate a carpet on the floor in the tropics. I serve cold drinks 24/7 and only 2 more expensive rooms have a fridge. No guest ever asked for white towels and bedsheets.

Mass tourism starts in countries where all costs for tourists are (relatively) low.

Spain was the first country where Europeans massively went on a holiday because: Hotels were cheap, food was cheap, beer and other alcoholic beverages were cheap, taxis were cheap, rental cars were cheap, beaches were clean and free, the sea was beautiful and most of all plenty sunshine. Other countries followed: Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria etc.

I love Ghana, and what I love most is my freedom, my Club, my local drinking spots, my local food, my Labadi Beach, and my fellow Ghanaians who are quite easy to have an interesting discussion with. But I am not a tourist. In my enthusiasm, I invited several family members and friends and all of them loved Ghana. But most of them loved it because I was able to show them around and I could explain how things worked in Ghana and mostly because their expectations were so low about Africa that they were all relieved.

So what do you think will happen when a tourist plans a wonderful holiday to Ghana after seeing our great country on CNN? beautiful beaches, pristine nature, culture wonderful traditions?

I think that type of tourists will be very disappointed.

Ghana is not South Africa, Botwana, Kenya, or Tanzania with beautiful wildlife.

Ghana is not Mozambique, Zanzibar, Mauritius or the Seychelles with their beautiful Indian Ocean.

I never understood why Ghana is concentrating on 4- and 5-star hotels. Because when you set one foot out of your 5-star hotel you enter a 0–1-star environment. When I book a 5-star hotel in Dubai, Sharm el Sheikh, Mauritius, Bahama’s or Hawaii and step out of my hotel there are 5-star shopping centres, 5-star golf courses, 5 star theatres, Casinos, water sports etc.

A former director of an airline ones told me Ghana is a Friends and family destination. I like to add: and diplomats, NGO staff and Volunteers. Recently we were able to add African Americans who are escaping the American environment towards black people thinking Africa is heaven when they arrive. But after some time (check YouTube) etc. they also wake up and start to see the things as they are. And as a basis to develop our tourism sector only on friends, family and black Americans only there are not many possibilities to develop fast. I even remember that African Americans starting to come before the change to this century but they run off massively after 911 and it took almost 20 years to make them return as an interest group to Ghana. (Best campaign ever!)

What does Ghana really have to offer?

The most important thing: Ghana is a safe and Peaceful African destination.

Ghana has a unique history with unique people and great cultural and tribal heritage.

Ghana has unique castles and forts of a horrible colonial and slave history.

Ghanaians speak English, making us accessible for many tourists.

Ghana has a fantastic culinary diversity.

Taxis (in the cities) local food, local drinks are affordable.

We have great music and great places to have fun

Ghana’s weak points are, and some have been mentioned already;

Not Ghana’s fault but the image of Africa is pulling us down.

Holiday periods in the developed world don’t tally with best time of the year in Ghana.

Absence of cheap, chartered holiday flights to Ghana.

Our affordable hotels offer not enough or are far below tourist standards

Our tourist attractions are too far apart from each other.

Our roads and means of transportation to reach them are bad or nonexistent.

Our tourist attractions are in bad shape and badly maintained

Many tourist attractions are overrated.

We try to take too much advantage of the few real tourists and overcharge them.

We “jump” too much on tourist, they prefer peace and quietness.

There are factors that make development of tourism extra difficult and to me the most important one is a complete mismatch between Local and Foreign Tourism demand. A simple example is tourist doesn’t mind sleeping in a (safe) simple hut on the beach with bamboo furniture and bed, a fan or natural ventilation and a local tourist (who can afford tourism) prefers a five-star environment with AC, swimming pool, TV, luxury furniture, foreign drinks because he/she is rich or at least wannabe or pretending to be rich.

To develop Ghana Tourism to its real potential my humble advice to the Ghana Tourist Board and Minister of Tourism is:

Advertise our strong points around the world.

Don’t hide our imperfections but correct them if possible

Concentration on tourist target groups who are not depending on European seasons

Promote Ghana as a short holiday destination and a round trip destination,

Promote Ghana as the African people and culture holiday destination.

Get rid of reciprocity on Visa requirements; introduce Visa on arrival for all tourists.

Simplify entrance and exit forms or cancel them completely.

Introduce Taxi with meter per km/hour registration at the airport only.

Other suggestions:

Ghana has a unique birdlife but we don’t have a bird zoo

Ghana should have a zoo with all indigenous animals close to Accra.\

Ghana should develop (for example) Shai hills in our closest wildlife park.

Ghana should use our canoe fishing activities as a tourist attraction.

Ghana should upgrade Aburi Gardens

I can go on, all I hope is that someone will pick something up from this long story, but who am I? Just a concerned Ghanaian.

Nico van Staalduinen has been connected to the hospitality since a young age when his father was running a Hotel Restaurant in Leiden, The Netherlands. He had a classical service training working in the hospitality sector as a waiter, a cook, a receptionist and assistant manager in the Netherlands, France and Germany. He is a graduate of the Hotel School of Amsterdam specializing in Service/Food/Beverage and Tourism. He owned and run Hotels, guesthouses and restaurants alone but also with his wife in Ghana, South Africa, France and the Netherlands. After his career in the hospitality sector, he travelled as a businessman to all continents and was a frequent flyer on Platinum and Gold membership of 2 airlines at the same time, meaning over 18 intercontinental flights annually. During his hotel school, he was also trained as an IATA agent. He has over 40 years hospitality, travel and tourism experience during which he visited over 50 countries.

Columnist: Nico van Staalduinen